President Ahmadinejad’s visited Brazil last week vindicates Iran’s strategy of cosying up with Latin America.
HOW should you deal with elected leaders who view their domestic opponents as agents of foreign powers and occasionally muse about invading their neighbours? Brazil has some experience of this question after ten years of the presidency of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Its answer has always been simple: hug them close. This week that approach was stretched a little further when Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was received in Brasília on a state visit.
Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, offered support for Iran’s work on nuclear technology for (supposedly) peaceful use. He also talked about Israel’s right to stay just where it is on the map, coexisting with a Palestinian state. Outside, protesters waved banners reminding Mr Ahmadinejad that the Holocaust had indeed taken place, and a debate on Brazil’s foreign policy began to blaze. “It is one thing to have diplomatic relations with dictatorships,” wrote José Serra, the governor of São Paulo state and (undeclared) front-runner for next year’s presidential election, in the Folha newspaper. “It is quite another to welcome their leaders into your house.”
Yet that is what some Latin American countries have been doing. Farideh Farhi of the Woodrow Wilson Centre, a think-tank in Washington, DC, says Iran has moved into America’s backyard “as a means to rattle it, or at least make a point.” The instruments of this policy have ranged from making “anti-capitalist” cars in Venezuela (see “Wheels of revolution ”) to producing news programmes and documentaries for Bolivian television, no doubt to give a fair and balanced view of the Great Satan. There have also been various moves on trade finance between Iran and Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Venezuela.
Fruits of this policy so far have included support from Venezuela and Cuba in a vote at the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran’s nuclear programme in 2006 (Syria was the only other country to offer support). More important to Mr Ahmadinejad, his visits to Latin America are boosting him at a time when he is unwelcome in many countries, and under pressure at home after his disputed re-election in June.
To see how Iran’s foreign policy works in smaller, ideologically sympathetic Latin American countries, take Ecuador-a country that has such dire problems raising money after defaulting on its debt that it can easily be swayed by cash from foreign governments. Ecuador is thinking of joining Nicaragua and Venezuela in recognising the independence of the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the hope of getting Russian government loans.
This month an Iranian delegation was in Quito, Ecuador’s capital, to discuss loans for hydroelectric power plants, one of the 25 bilateral agreements signed when Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s president, visited Iran last year. Ecuador badly needs the plants: it was forced to start rationing power this month.
The two governments have already set up financing arrangements to ease trade. The Iranian banks involved-the Export Development Bank of Iran and its Caracas-based subsidiary, Banco Internacional de Desarrollo, have been blacklisted by the United States for allegedly financing Iran’s nuclear programme. There are also fears that Iran could launder money through Ecuador, which uses the American dollar as its currency. The country’s Central Bank was told by its own compliance officer that it risked American sanctions, including the seizure of money held abroad.
Before this week, Iran had achieved little success with the region’s larger countries. Mexico is not interested in Iran’s advances. Colombia takes a robust approach to countries accused of collaborating with terrorists. Argentina has frosty relations with Iran, dating back to the still-unresolved bombings of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires in the 1990s. That is why the trip to Brazil was so significant. “For Iran, a state visit to Brazil is worth ten to Venezuela,” says Peter Hakim of the Inter-American Dialogue, another American think-tank.
For Brazil, the risks are rather greater. President Lula frequently talks about how important democracy is, and members of his government invoke their experience of exile or imprisonment at the hands of Brazil’s former military government. This sits awkwardly with reports that Iran’s government has sentenced to death five opposition activists since the protests that followed its disputed election.
Brazil risks overstepping the mark in its desire to be seen as an important country. Earlier this month, when Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, was in Brasília, President Lula talked about Brazil helping to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His suggestion of a football match between Brazil and a mixed team of Israelis and Palestinians is nice enough. However, Brazil has failed to settle far simpler disputes between Argentina and Uruguay, Venezuela and Colombia, and Honduras’s political rivals. It has little chance of succeeding where more powerful countries have failed for so long in the Middle East.
Still, a Brazil that is engaged in the world’s problems, albeit tentatively, is surely better than one that is not. The United States government stayed silent on the subject of President Ahmadinejad’s visit to Brazil. But its annoyance at seeing the Iranian leader embraced so warmly in its backyard may be tempered by the thought that at least there is now a line of communication open, via Brasília, to Tehran.